Hard News by Russell Brown

Just different

A letter below in response to yesterday's post. No, I don't think Americans are "the worst people in the world" - and I had misgivings about using the quote for fear of that misunderstanding. But it was a compelling illustration of the trouble brewing in Iraq.

And, for that matter, elsewhere. The Pew survey, both in its compelling illustration of the collapse of international opinion about the US in the past year, and its illustration of how different America is from the rest of the West, is probably the most interesting thing I've read all year.

I don't hate America. How could I, when I type this into an American computer, and send it across a network that is the greatest expression of American intellectual vitality in my lifetime? I have friends in America too.

But every time I visit the US I am both thrilled by it and unnerved by the feeling that social mobility has broken down.

There is, of course, empirical evidence for that feeling. The Economic Policy Institute's The State of Working America seems to demonstrate that the American underclass - the bottom 20 per cent of the population - is trapped, far more so than in Europe. One of the stories Americans tell about themselves - from a log cabin to the White House - is no longer true.

Yet, the Pew survey (along with many others) indicates that Americans care far less than citizens of other Western countries about that. Their view (like the American fervour for religion, it is shared in poor and developing countries) is that it is more important that they are personally left free to excel and prosper. And they deeply, deeply believe they will. Read this:

The most telling polling result from the 2000 election was from a Time magazine survey that asked people if they are in the top 1 percent of earners. Nineteen percent of Americans say they are in the richest 1 percent and a further 20 percent expect to be someday. So right away you have 39 percent of Americans who thought that when Mr. Gore savaged a [tax] plan that favored the top 1 percent, he was taking a direct shot at them.

You might take this as evidence of grand delusion; a handy myth, even, for the maintenance of economic serfdom. After all, 19 per cent of people cannot, by definition, be in the top one per cent, no matter how much they think they are, and how much they think they will reap a tax cut that they won't. Yet the original New York Times column in which the paragraph appeared - was hailing it as a vivid illustration of American "optimism", as was this conservative forum where the original Times piece is pasted in. America is different. It is fed by its myths. The question is whether it is in danger of being consumed by them.

Anyway, the letter:

Kia Ora Mr Brown,

I am an Expat Kiwi living in Canada and working throughout the Pacific Northwest. My work and the travel associated, has allowed me to observe the great US Paradox; Bible belt piety dancing and shaking in the aisles, while huddled in the rear pews lie the homeless masses (and I mean masses) the very busy sex workers, and the drug addicts.

I have been in countless I-5 towns where you see the same thing over and over again. People trying to sell you stolen goods in bowling alley parking lots, and the same people heading for church every sunday to shake and roll with Jesus. Now, I am not saying all this to somehow exemplify how 'bad' Americans behave... It is more a matter of how confused the people really are. When you have a President with the moral fervor of a TV Preacher (and half the charisma) all over the television and on that same television you have such socio/psychological wonders as "the fifth wheel" (compelling I admit, like watching a car wreck) on every other channel it must be very hard to draw moral lines in the sand.

Perhaps easier to let others do it for you... or perhaps just easier to yell "kill arabs" (I have seen it!) to help yourself feel better and maybe less confused.... the answer for this poor muddled populace appears to be; think as little as possible and use patriotic frenzy (that is generally every bit as scary to watch as any middle eastern militant muslim march) to drown out reason and/or confusion. Believe me, driving through a small town that has at least three sets of stars and stripes hanging from every house is eerie and unsettling to say the least.

I must add that my co workers in the states have taught me a thing or two about 'American bashing'. It is wrong. It simply perpetuates the very thing despised in the American mindset, the 'lack of understanding'.... Try and understand these people and this country.

From where I sit, you sir, generally do a good job. You are sometimes a little rough but this is the nature of your column and you tend to have the humility on occasion to admit your over zealousness.

Just try to remember, and perhaps remind your readers, that the great sweeping majority of Americans are living tough lives. The tiny Minority of Americans control the wealth, this much is obvious as you move around the country.

Thank you for your time.

If you wish to reply then feel free to do so, I have greatly enjoyed your Blogs and they help a homesick boy keep in touch with the pulse of his beloved nation.

Kia Kaha
Shayne Stuchbery